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Writing Life: On Reading Well

More thoughts on Paul Auster, the New York Trilogy, and reading carefully

This Writing Life has been a pretty consistent column for the past several months: my passions are pretty apparent if you’ve read even a few posts. Books must be written with the worldview behind them in view, with intentionality and craft, instead of blatant preachiness. Stories have an incredibly powerful ability to impact their readers, so writers have an opportunity to saturate their books in the truth that they believe, subconsciously introducing their views in the vehicle of a fantastic story. This philosophy puts more emphasis on the story than on being right, dismisses preachiness as ineffective, and longs to portray Christianity and faith as the greatest true story of the world, rather than a two-minute confession in prayer. While all of this is true, today I want to look at the converse of the idea: books must be read with the worldview behind them in view. What does it mean to be a Christian reader of books?

Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and a great deal of chewing on the subject (thanks to the Finer Things book club, as well as my former English teacher, Chris Olshefski) have been the drivers of this. Through the end of the year, I want to take some time to consider what it means to be a careful reader, studying what we read and using it to benefit our mind and our life, instead of proceeding willy-nilly through a story like a remote-controlled bulldozer in the Amazon jungle. Let’s look at how we can read well.

Any reader can be prone to wrench around a book and put their own interpretations into it, disregarding the author’s own. This is a two-edged sword: while a book ought to provoke our own ideas in us, many times different ones than the author intended, it can be fatal to ignore an author’s worldview in reading a book. Paul Auster believes that the act of writing a novel enables a writer to express his true self in a way that he can’t do in real life. Consequently, his books are intensely personal and powerful examinations of identity, reality, and eternity.

The New York Trilogy is ultimately a hopeless book. It presents no solution to the question of a human identity. Auster catches tantalizing glimpses of sunlight through the dense forest canopy, but ultimately concludes that there can’t be a sun after all. As Jared Wilson said in our discussion of the book, the New York Trilogy is “a powerful proof of God.” It completely shows the hopelessness and futility that’s left when God is cut out of the picture. Much like Ecclesiastes, The New York Trilogy hangs on the mind with haunting persistence.

As Christians, we have the worldview to see Paul Auster’s hopelessness and conclude that his hope is ultimately misplaced. We read his books and see a fuller, more complete picture around them. But Auster’s books certainly fit into the picture! How foolish it would be to ignore his books, dismiss them, and miss the vulnerable honesty that his heart has poured into the story. There is much to be learned about humanity from reading Auster. But without approaching his own message, and seeking to understand it on its terms, Auster cannot enrich our broader picture.

It’s a difficult balance, in the end, to read with respect to the author’s view and also be drawing our own conclusions. I can’t do it perfectly, which keeps me beating my head against Auster, plumbing the depths of Faulkner, or immersing myself in Ecclesiastes. The shadows bring definition to the light of the painting. If we read in a quick, judgmental manner everything we read will settle into a blinding light of sameness which, while true, will not sharpen and hone our minds and our ability to read carefully.


Note: It’s been a long time since there’s been a column. Thanksgiving was a break, and then our whole family came down with the flu. Hoping to get back to normal now, though! Next week we’ll be looking at getting out of your comfort zone: on how to read books you know you’ll disagree with. Stay tuned! (Miss one of the posts in This Writing Life? You can see all of them at this page).